There Is No Greater Thrill Than Making Something That’s Yours: An Interview with Faith Erin Hicks
In interest of full disclosure: I am an unabashedly biased about Faith Erin Hicks, whose work I’ve loved for more than ten years now. Every since I found a mini-comic called Zombies Calling in the submissions when I was editor-in-chief at SLG (Slave Labor Graphics) Publishing, I knew she was a cartoonist who was going somewhere. I went on to edit the graphic novel, as well as Hicks’ second graphic novel The War at Ellsmere.
But before I’d even seen her work, Hicks had already built a following online with her webcomics Demonology 101 and Ice. Since 1999, she has been had an audience for her development as a cartoonist, one that found her through mutual love of the comics medium --- and her 2010 fan-art adaptation of the opening of The Hunger Games brought her new fans.
Since then Hicks has gone on to write and draw the graphic novel Friends with Boys and the comic strip The Adventures of Superhero Girl (for which she received an Eisner Award in 2013), adapt the young adult Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen as a graphic novel, as well as draw the graphic novel Brain Camp (written by Susan Kim) and the comic book mini-series The Last of Us, based on the video game.
Hicks’ newest graphic novel is The Nameless City, a young adult graphic novel set in a fictional world based on 14th-century China, and the first in a trilogy. A boy from the provinces eager to learn more about the mysterious city and a scrappy girl who grew up within its walls forge an unlikely friendship, despite the rift between their people. It arrives in stores on April 5.
ComicsAlliance: Let’s start with your new book, The Nameless City --- what was the process of creating that? Was there a particular kind of story you wanted to tell or a particular kind of character or world you wanted to explore?
Faith Erin Hicks: With Nameless City, I wanted to create a story about a friendship between two kids from the opposite side of a conflict. That was the very beginning of the story. I started noodling around with character designs for the comic years ago, just as a fun side project to play with when I was done drawing comics for the day. It's evolved a lot since the beginning, influenced by the research I did into Chinese history, as well as manga like Fullmetal Alchemist. I really wanted to do a story set in a fictional, historical world, something very different from the comics I'd drawn previously. My editor makes fun of me for this, but I'd drawn a couple of graphic novels set in high school, and was sick of drawing school lockers. So I decided to break my wrist by drawing historical Chinese houses with a million tiled roofs. Good job, me!
CA: What about Chinese history grabbed your attention to inspire the book’s setting? Is there a particular era that inspire you? Or particular historical figures?
Hicks: A lot of the setting of The Nameless City was inspired by the Yuan Dynasty, which ruled China from 1271 to 1368. China had been conquered by Mongols, and now a grandson of Genghis Khan was ruling under the Mandate of Heaven. Although The Nameless City is fantasy (there is no "Nameless City" in history), researching the Yuan Dynasty helped inform the development of the nation Kai is from. The Dao (Kai's people) are a nation of conquerors, and now they're facing the possibility of their culture evolving into something less warlike. The question is, how will the people in power respond to that? I read a pretty decent stack of nonfiction books while developing this comic; I think only like 0.1% of what I read actually made it into the book, but I felt the research really helped give the story its supporting foundation.
CA: Your work often involves friendships between characters who come from different sides of the tracks, so to speak. In The Nameless City, it’s the Kaidu, who is Dao --- one of the people who conquered the City --- and Rat, one of the Named, the natives of the City. In The War at Ellsmere, it was Jun and Cassie. What about those interactions attracts you and contributes to your stories?
Hicks: Haha, yeah, I do love those opposing world friendships. I think the relationship between Cassie and Jun in Ellsmere was a little different, because even though they came from opposite worlds (Jun was a scholarship student, Cassie was born into privilege), they were still two outcasts, so bonded over that. Rat and Kai don't have that common ground when they meet; Rat has suffered a lot under the rule of Kai's people, and she really wants nothing to do with him initially.
I don't want to give away any spoilers, but it was important to me that their relationship be portrayed as complicated. It's not like they meet and bond and forget that they're from opposite sides, their relationship is marred by the damage done to Rat by Kai's people, and it's something that can't be brushed aside. I wanted Kai to deal with that, instead of him just befriending this girl and having everything be awesome because he's a nice kid. Hopefully that isn't too spoiler-ish. Anyway, complicated friendships! They are challenging and fun to write.
CA: Something that’s interesting to me is that Kai and Rat aren’t just from opposite sides of a conflict — they’re different ethnicities as well. Here in the west, a lot of people think of China and Chinese people as monolithic, but China contains many ethnicities. Was that part of what you were reading about in your research for The Nameless City?
Hicks: The diversity of the world was a really important part of the story. To me it's the backbone of the whole setting. I wanted not only the diversity of China represented but also the diversity of Central Asia. I read a few books about the Silk Road and commerce and travel in the 14th century, and found it really fascinating how much interaction there was between different cultures, and how trade fostered that interaction. The Nameless City is a place built by people trying to make a living wage, and I wanted to show all these different people living side by side in this huge, multicultural city.
I have to single out my excellent colourist, Jordie Bellaire as being invaluable in making the City look so diverse. It was particularly important to me that Rat and Kai looked different in both their clothing and their ethnicity, as it heightens the visual divide between them.
CA: There’s great kung-fu-movie-style running, leaping and fighting in The Nameless City, but with humorous elements that are almost like Buster Keaton silent movie stunts. That’s something that has been in your work for a while — like Joss being a sudden badass in Zombies Calling, your first graphic novel. How did you choreograph the action?
Hicks: Mostly I wandered through YouTube, watching videos of parkour and freerunning. And I read a ton of manga. If there's anything kinetic in my comics, it's probably inspired by manga!
CA: For those that don’t know, the books I referenced above, Zombies Calling and The War at Ellsmere were your first and second graphic novels, published by SLG, and I edited both. Looking back at those books, how do you think you’ve developed since then? Obviously, your art has gotten even more fabulous, but how have your storytelling and visual techniques changed or refined over the years?
Hicks: Oh gosh, my art... I think my technical skills are always improving, just based on the sheer amount of comics I draw. Every page I draw I feel like I gain a little more understanding of this medium. I think my handle on things like panel composition and dynamic character acting is improving as well. I'm becoming more comfortable with drawing characters doing things like fighting, running, dancing, etc.
I'm not sure how aware I am of this improvement as it happens. Like, I look back on my work and obviously the artwork in Nameless City is more attractive, detailed and dynamic than the artwork in The War at Ellsmere, but I'm not sure what I consciously did to make it so. I just drew thousands of pages of comics, and tried my hardest to make every page the best it could be.
CA: One thing I think is great is how you often point out your first work that you put online, to show people just how far practice can get artists. As a cartoonist, you pretty much “grew up” online with your web comics Demonology 101 and Ice --- and with Ice, you kept it up until 2010.
Can you talk about the importance of the web comic scene to your career and development as an artist? Do you think that things have changed online in a way that would have made it easier or more difficult for you to post your work?
Hicks: The internet was very important to me when I was starting out; I literally would not have the career that I have without the internet. Drawing terrible webcomics for years and years and putting them online was how I learned to draw and grew as an artist and writer. Doing webcomics gave me the push to keep going with my comics; I had deadlines to meet! Every Sunday there were a handful of readers waiting on new Demonology 101 pages, and I didn't want to disappoint them.
Man, that comic was so important to me. Like, I was deeply ashamed of it because I thought the art never looked good enough and it wasn't a "real comic," but it was all mine and that was wonderful. For me there is no greater thrill than making something that's yours.
Anyway, the internet has changed a lot since I last did a regular webcomic. Social media has made it a lot easier for comics to be widely read, but the sheer amount of comics online (and great comics! Fully coloured, professional quality comics!) seems to have made it a lot more difficult for comics to find a readership. I see fantastic looking comics online that update like three times a week to only a handful of readers.
When I was doing Demonology 101, it was black and white, the art wasn't great and it only updated once a week, but because there were so few story-based webcomics online, I almost immediately had a (small) readership. I'm really glad I'm not just starting out in webcomics right now. It feels like unless you are a true lightning-in-a-bottle genius like Kate Beaton, it's hard to gain a readership.
CA: With Friends with Boys, you posted the book online before it was published in print. Was that a nod toward your beginnings as a web cartoonist? What went into that decision, on both your part and your publishers?
Hicks: It was actually my agent's suggestion to put Friends with Boys online. I think I was kind of mournfully complaining about the long wait before publication, and she saw me whining and was like, well, why don't we ask First Second about serializing the book online before it comes out? First Second was willing to let me post it online, and I did a lot of blogging while the webcomic version ran. We also did the same thing with Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, my follow up comic.
I had a lot of fun doing the webcomic, although it ended up being more time consuming than I originally thought. I did a lot of blogging while it updated, talking about my struggles as a cartoonist. I think it was a good choice, though. When I was finished serializing those comics, I feel like a lot more people were aware of my work.
CA: Friends with Boys has more of those “complicated friendships” you talked about, but also sibling relationships. Did relationships with your own family inspire Maggie’s relationship with her brothers?
Hicks: A little bit. Maggie is the youngest in her family and I'm the oldest (my three brothers are all younger than me), so that changed the dynamic in the story a lot. But I definitely took bits from my own life and my own relationship with my brothers and put them into Maggie's story.
CA: You’ve mentioned manga as inspiring you, and it was the entry-point to comics for many young women, but I know you came to it a little later. What were the first comics you read?
Hicks: I'm Canadian, so I grew up reading Tintin and Asterix. All the kids in my family were super into those comics, and I'm pretty sure those comics are the reason I now draw comics for a living. As great as those comics are, however, they have practically no female characters in them. Like, Tintin has one female character, the opera singer Bianca Castafiore, and everyone hates her. I remember complaining to my mom there were no girls in my Tintin comics.
CA: Your Eisner-Award-winning comic strip The Adventures of Superhero Girl plays with the tropes of mainstream American superhero comics, and you did a story for Marvel, in their Girl Comics. I think all of us who work in comics have fraught relationships with superhero comics --- what’s yours like? How did Superhero Girl tap into your feelings about it? It has a certain (seemingly) uncomplicated exuberance and joy that could have meaning in itself.
Hicks: Superhero Girl was basically me doing superheroes. That was my lofty goal. Just draw a superhero comic that I thought I'd enjoy, and make a couple dollars. Originally the comic strip ran in a free weekly newspaper in Halifax, and I got paid $45 per comic. I think it ran from 2010 to 2012? I'm not quite sure. Anyway, I was very poor back then and I really needed that $45 a comic, so I just drew this goofy superhero comic filled with the kind of goofy nonsense I wanted to see in real superhero comics but never did for some reason.
As a teenager I had my flirtation with X-Men, and I've always been very attracted to the genre of superhero comics, but they never seemed to be made for me. And now, a few years after I finished doing my Superhero Girl comics, we have comics like Gotham Academy, Ms. Marvel and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, comics that I enjoy very much, and are definitely made for me! It's incredible how much things can change in a few short years.
CA: Finally, what's next for you? After you take a break from drawing all those roofs!
Hicks: I've already got my next project waiting for me, one that I'm really thrilled about: I'm going to be collaborating with Rainbow Rowell on a graphic novel. She's one of my favorite writers, and I think we're going to make awesome comics together.